Walking along the bank above the grey green waters of the Ishikari, running full and fast due to snow melt, I disturbed a fox. It was up ahead, sniffing by a wooden post, tawny-coated below the silver-gold sky of a setting sun. It turned my way then ran down towards the water, a dark blur against the snow, brush tail flouncing.
There it rested beneath a bare branched willow and I saw that there were two. They were larger than I expected and I later read that they were most likely Kitakitsune. I tried to capture them with my iPhone but it was twilight, they were far away and on the move, and after three attempts my phone’s batteries expired and it shut down.
I walked on a little then turned and looked back. They’d stopped running and were standing immobile, heads raised, watching. I resumed my walk with a feeling of loss. It’s unlikely I’ll see those two again. Ahead, the sun dropped below the clouds and a sharp wind picked up dry leaves from the snow at my feet. A solitary Tobi circled high in the sky above.
The Kitakitsune, the Tobi, the fluttering leaves, the roiling river, and me. Nothing else moved in the silent landscape. To my left, the Ishikari flowed swiftly to the north, banks stacked with dirty piles of snow sculpted into strange shapes by wind and sun. To my right, rows of pastel houses, shabby-seeming in the twilight, displayed yellow-glowing windows.
You can walk in a foreign country and forget to see the differences while you tread the unfamiliar city footpaths and unexplored tracks by the river. You can investigate routes through powdery snow or earthy tree litter, while disregarding the strange smells and ignoring the different angle of the sun. You can choose to be in the moment or to let your mind drift away.
About a year ago I was contacted by editor Bryce Stevens and asked if I’d be interested in contributing to a new Lovecraftian anthology, set in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American writer who achieved posthumous fame through his influential works of horror fiction. He was virtually unknown and published only in pulp magazines before he died in poverty, but he is now regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors of his genre. (Wikipedia)
Cthulhu: Land of the Long White Cloud, was released on 14 September in Australia; its New Zealand launch will be at Armageddon in October.
The Caverns of the Unnamed One
The story I contributed, The Caverns of the Unnamed One, commences in present-day Auckland, with the discovery of a mysterious unidentified man, washed up on the shores of Rangitoto Island.
As the tale unfolds, the reader is taken back to 1950s Auckland and we find out what transpires when second-hand book dealer, Frank Woodburn, comes across a journal from the late 19th Century, while clearing a house-lot of books.
This discovery takes him from the safety of his home in central Auckland to the eerie darkness of the military tunnels that honeycomb the promontory of North Head.
Our flight touched down at Heathrow too late in the day to fly on to Helsinki, so we’d booked one night at a hotel close to the airport. I felt comfortably smug that I had it all organised. Imagine my shock when I discovered that I’d booked for the 29th of the wrong month. And it was a ‘no refund’ booking.
My distress quickly turned to disbelief and then to dismay. I suppose we were lucky that there were still rooms available for the night we were actually there, so I had to swallow my pride and fork out another £65, adding the experience to my ever-growing list of ‘lessons learned’.
Blocked up and miserable
To make matters worse, on the drive to LA airport I realised I’d contracted a cold, and by the time we arrived in the UK I was feeling pretty grim. The next shock was the weather. After the 40+ temperatures in California, the 16 C with drizzling rain was hardly a warm welcome.
Back in New Zealand a few months earlier, I’d been browsing ‘What’s on in London’ for the night we were there, and had been surprised to read that The Modern Māori Quartet were performing a ‘one and only’ gig in London on the exact same day. The show was scheduled for 4 pm at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush, so we’d booked tickets thinking it would be a fun thing to do. We’d also be able to say ‘Hi’ to our son’s friend, Maaka. But now that we were actually in London, I was questioning the wisdom of that ‘bright idea’. We were both still recovering from the non-booked room screwup, the weather was crummy, and we were a long way from Shepherd’s Bush. Nonetheless, we decided to stick with our plan, so caught the shuttle bus back to the airport, purchased a couple of Oyster Cards, loaded them with some cash, negotiated a couple of different routes on London’s Underground, then walked as rapidly as we could to Bush Hall. We arrived at our destination with just a few minutes to spare, despite having to switch trains due to delays on one of the lines.
According to Bush Hall’s website, the venue was originally built by a publisher in 1904, and is one of a trio of London dance halls he built for each of his daughters, Bush Hall being the only survivor of the three. The hall has enjoyed a varied existence since then. In WWII it served time as a soup kitchen, before being reinvented as a bingo hall, a rehearsal space, and a snooker & social club. It was restored to its former ‘musical glory’ in 2001 by its current owners.
At the hall we bought a couple of cheap red wines and settled in to enjoy the performance. The place was fully booked (well, as far as I could tell, as they had to bring in more chairs from the back) and the audience seemed to only comprise of Kiwis – a motley assortment, at that. The Modern Maori Quartet was as polished as ever, and everyone around us was having a good time, singing along and channeling their ‘kiwiness’. I can’t say my heartstrings were plucked, but then we’d only been away from home for less than a week. Unfortunately we didn’t get to catch up with Maaka as he wasn’t on that particular tour.
After the performance was over, we wearily trudged back along the road in the rain, ordering a £4.95 meal from an Indian restaurant on the way to the Underground. We thought this a good deal, until they stung us £2 each for two small bottles of water. When I’d asked earlier for a couple of glasses of water, I’d thought we’d be given tap water. Won’t do that again. Then back on one train, then another, then the airport shuttle, then the short walk (still in the rain) back to the hotel.
Once again, it had been a long day, starting with our departure from Indian Wells at 6.30 am and moving on to the drive to LA airport, the disposal of the rental car, the horrors of US Customs, UK Customs, the non-booked hotel, negotiating public transport in London… perhaps we’d overestimated our energy levels, but at least we did manage to achieve all that we’d planned.
That night in the hotel we barely unpacked, just fell into bed and slept fitfully until our alarms woke us up around 4.00 am. The flights to Helsinki departed at 7.30 am so we had to get organised early. But as we departed from our hotel in the grey early light, I was filled with a sense of optimism. That feeling of being ‘on the road again’ with a whole new country ahead of us. Helsinki meant summer and seeing family. The air b n b we’d booked looked lovely (online, at least), and we wouldn’t have to travel anywhere far for the next five days. And surely my health would improve.
We stayed at Indian Wells for four days, which was the duration of the conference that had sent us there to begin with. During that time, an out-of-control fire raged on the other side of the San Jacinto Mountains, sending dark plumes of smoke into the western skies. I first noticed the change in the light on the second afternoon, when I asked one of the bell boys whether the dark clouds above the ranges were thunder clouds. It was then that he told me it was from a purposely lit fire and I immediately noticed the smoky smell in the air, and the unusual golden tinge that was beginning to affect the quality of the sunlight.
As the day progressed, and indeed, over the following four days, the smoke became worse, and the conflagration became known as the ‘Cranston Fire’, spreading until it had engulfed over 13,000 acres of land, destroying at least five houses and leading to the evacuation of 7000 people. At one point, on a visit to Palm Springs, the sun could barely be seen through the haze.
Exploring the Coachella Valley
To make the most of our rental car (if not to enjoy the air conditioning inside) we made several short excursions into the Coachella Valley. I’d pored over the tourist brochures and circled the places that looked most interesting and were within local driving distance.
The first we investigated was the Oasis Date Gardens. There we could expect to see, ‘a video show on date history and cultivation, a picnic area surrounded by our beautiful palm garden, a date palm and ornamental palm arboretum, a cactus garden and an antique farm equipment exhibit’. This sounded all very interesting, so we turned on our GPS and made our way there.
I think the information in the tourist brochure was somewhat out of date (excuse the pun) as there weren’t any gardens you could walk in, just a neglected patch of grass to the left of the run-down looking shop-cum-café. The cactus garden was a bit sad-looking, too, in fact the whole ‘garden’ area was very neglected.
Despite the less-than-encouraging exterior, we swallowed down our trepidation and went inside to investigate – we were hanging out for a cup of coffee, if nothing else. There was one girl working behind a counter and no-one else in sight. The left half of the room had some tables and chairs, and the other side had a table with bins of dates, a set of scales, bags, tongs, etc., surrounded by some packaged date products, and other ‘for sale’ items. In a back section there were some tired-looking posters with historical information on them.
The café didn’t appear to still be running, but we ordered a coffee anyway, only to be told that the machine wasn’t working. There was a comprehensive array of date-related products on the café menu, but we didn’t really care to try any. They all sounded too sweet and milky. The date shop itself was well worth the drive. There were about twenty different varieties of dates for sale, and you could taste them all before purchasing (which I did). We ended up buying quite a decent-size bag of Barhi dates. The usual ‘fancy’ and expensive dates you can get in New Zealand are Medjool, and I do like those, but to my taste buds, the Barhi* were the best of all. Smaller, very sweet, soft, tasting like butterscotch or caramel, and with very soft skins. Our bag cost us about US $3.50, which we considered very good value.
I was also fascinated by the date palms with their enormous bunches of dates. There were acres and acres of these in the area. If you can picture barren, arid, jagged hills, dusty ground, huge blue skies with tinges of smoke around the edges, and row upon row of date palms, then this would possibly give you an idea of the look of the place.
On another day we drove to ‘old’ La Quinta. The old part of town had the classic southern US border town look – dazzling sunlight, white plastered buildings, palms, fleshy plants (such as yucca and aloe), dark shade, tinkling fountains, and a hot, dry smell. Streets empty in the middle of the day, shop doors closed to keep out the heat, and the necessity of scurrying from shady patch to shady patch.
We’d encountered this same situation on a February trip to Hawker, north of Adelaide, where the locals know not to venture outside in the middle of the day and the place ends up looking like a ghost town. In the Coachella Valley, mist machines are deployed to keep the store entrances and outside seating areas, cool. We were intrigued by these as we’d never seen them before, so walked into the cool clouds whenever we could. And they worked!
We drove the thirty or so minutes to Palm Springs a couple of times. The smoke from the Cranston Fires was more evident there, as the city is nestled against the foot of the La Jacinta mountain range, and the fires were directly on the other side. A nice touch was that Ben’s brother Dennis and his wife Lauren drove all the way down from northern LA (about a 3-hour drive) to meet us for lunch the first time we visited. They suggested meeting for lunch at El Mirasol Restaurant and it was an excellent choice. The restaurant served very inexpensive, enormous Margaritas, and after a few gulps, there was no way the meal could go badly. But even without the Margaritas, we’d have loved the meals. The service was great, too.
On that visit to Palm Springs we were inside most of the time and didn’t really notice the heat, but on the second visit, it was so hot, I felt I could barely walk up the street, and it felt like the smoky air was sucking every drop of moisture out of my body. Needless to say, our visit was brief.
We fled to a mall, which turned out to be another Westfield – I guess they are everywhere, but I was still surprised (and not in a good way) to see the identical logo to that of our local mall in West Auckland, on the wall as we drew near.
In summary, the California leg of our trip was interesting and opened my eyes to a completely different part of the world. It was hot there… and we had expected this, but according to the local TV channel, the weather we experienced while we were there was the hottest for several decades and quite a few records were broken in the area. Only the smoky skies kept the heat from soaring even higher. Our only disappointment was the final night ‘gala dinner, of the conference.
The dinner cost the equivalent of NZ $145 per person, and the gap between my expectations and the reality of the meal, was enormous. We were given only one measly glass of wine for the whole meal, and the entrée was a small bread-and-butter-plate sized, flat selection of salad greens, just like you might purchase bagged up in plastic at the supermarket all ready to serve, but it had no dressing and nothing other than leaves in it, (i.e., no tomato, or carrot, or red pepper or cucumber). It looked very tired and as if it could do with a good rinse in some fresh water. The Main was okay… it was a piece of filet steak, cooked medium rare and tender, but small. Alongside this was a smear of possibly Béarnaise Sauce, with two spindly strands of asparagus trapped in it, and a tiny piece of roasted potato with skin on – perhaps the size of my watch face, and hmm… I think there was something else – perhaps a small flat mushroom or two. Dessert was some kind of ready-made tart – the kind you could buy from a generic cake shop. You had to crack the pastry crust to break into it. It was okay but adding the three courses together, plus the one small glass of unmemorable wine… well, we were very disappointed.
On our final day, we arose at around 5.00 am, and were on the road by just after 6.00 am. Then we retraced steps and drove to LA, dropped off the rental car, and joined the very long line crawling its way through the US Customs. This line moved somewhat quicker than on our entry and even though we’d been told to arrive three hours prior to our flight, we actually had a good two hours to fill in before our 5.15 pm flight to London.
* Barhi Dates – “Barhee or barhi (from Arabic barh, meaning ‘a hot wind’) – these are nearly spherical, light amber to dark brown when ripe; soft, with thick flesh and rich flavour. One of the few varieties that are good in the khalal stage when they are yellow (like a fresh grape, as opposed to dry, like a raisin). (Wikipedia)
We touched down at LAX around 1.00 pm on Tuesday, after a twelve-hour journey out of Auckland. The flight was uneventful, although I only managed to doze for a couple of sessions of about thirty or so minutes. Once we’d disembarked, the customs and security procedure was tiresome. Not the process itself (which was relatively straight-forward) but being sorted into a zig-zagging line of tired travelers, squashed together like an assortment of irregular human peas completely out of their pods… like zombies, even, shuffling forward a step at a time… tired, crumpled, barely able to communicate. The line took over two hours.
I felt sorry for a young couple behind us who had a connecting flight, and for the people who had babies and young children in tow. People were remarkably patient, however, and the little ones coped, somehow. In comparison, fetching our luggage and finding our way to collect the rental car was a walk in the park, and we negotiated our way out of the city without too much trouble.
The drive east to Indian Wells took about three hours and for most of the way there was a steady stream of traffic. Fortunately we could use a faster ‘ride share’ lane as there were two of us in the car.
When we finally arrived it was after 6.00 pm and the sun was setting, and the heat hit us like a physical blow when we exited the car. The only way I can describe the feeling is to say that it was as if someone was holding one of those electric bar heaters about six inches away from my body (every part) and that it was on full. Interestingly, I’ve since heard on the local news channel that this part of the US is experiencing record highs. So it’s not just me.
Indian Wells – population c.5000
Describing Indian Wells,the local City Council website states somewhat wistfully that “a century before Zane Grey immortalised the Old West, an Indian village had formed around a hand-built well in the Southern California desert”. It goes on to state that “the characters in this tale were to be the same he (Zane Grey) celebrated: Indians, explorers, pioneers, and prospectors; their actions framed against a rugged backdrop of mountains rising from a raw sand floor”. Although there was a thriving Indian village situated here in 1853, the discovery a decade later of gold on the Colorado River, changed everything. Indian Wells became an important stop-over on the way through the desert from Los Angeles.
I’m sure there are sites where evidence of the old history can still be seen, but for those of us who are just passing through, staying perhaps a few days for golf, or in our case, to attend a conference, there’s not much to see of the historical side of things. The Indian Wells that Ben and I are experiencing comprises low-lying sandy-coloured buildings with terracotta tiled roofs, a variety of tall palm trees (including the statuesque Saidy Date Palm), manicured lawns with misty sprinklers, and a surprising number of tinkling fountains. Oh, and there are the fancy resorts that rise up above the low-lying buildings like giant anthills. The place is a verdant oasis sprouting in the arid grey Coachella Valley, which in turn is surrounded by the sharp craggy peaks of a number of mountain ranges. It is very hot, very tidy, very quiet, very clean and very different from South Head.
To counteract the heat, we took a dip in the pool last night. The water was tepid and we splashed around for about five minutes, before realising that we were exhausted. Surprisingly, despite it still being 42 C, we felt chilly when we slid out and scurried for our towels. It was a very beautiful scene, though. A clear blue sky packed with stars, an almost full moon, turquoise pool, palm trees, subtle lighting… the whole resort thing. And the air-conditioning indoors is a welcome contrast to the heat outside. If you wished to, you could come to a place like this, swim in the pool, drink cocktails at the bar, eat at one of the in-house restaurants, head back to your room to watch cable TV, and never go out of the hotel for anything.
You could be anywhere in the world… except for the heat.
When I initially checked-in to First Cabin, I was asked to confirm that I wouldn’t be playing loud music, or producing inharmonious sounds, or using a noisy alarm clock, all in the interests of my fellow guests. The counter displayed a box of earplugs, ‘free of charge’, and I was soon to discover why. The ‘capsules’ are never entirely closed off from everyone else. Basically, they’re little cubicles open at one end, across which runs a stiff vinyl curtain.
Despite my tiredness, I could tell straight away that it was going to be a difficult night, sleep-wise. The bed was very hard and flat. It reminded me of a well-stuffed vinyl bench, except wider, and of course, it wasn’t vinyl, or if it was, it was well disguised under the bedding. There was a light duvet, a pillow, and a large flattish bolster affair that served as a head-board. The opaque vinyl curtain had a gap of about 10 cm at top and bottom, and let through light from the hallway. And even with everyone trying to be quiet you could still hear people walking back and forth, curtains scraping on their tracks, the rustle of papers, the sound of coughing, or of people going through their bags and getting ready for bed, or getting out of bed, and this went on for the whole night, as people checked in or departed at all hours.
I decided to take a shower before bed, so donned the rather uncomfortable tunic and pants and made my way to the shared bathroom. The series of rooms were dazzlingly bright after the subdued lighting of the hallways and were well-stocked with mirrors, hair-dryers, low stools and toiletries. Removing my slippers, I followed the signs to the shower section where it was clear that I was expected to remove my clothing and place the items into a basket, then cross the Tatami matting to the shower on the opposite side of the room. I was hesitating – weighing up the possibility of taking my towel in with me, when a naked woman appeared from the shower opposite and walked past me to her basket of clothes. At this point I realised I’d just have to go with the flow. And I also felt annoyed that I come from a culture where I still feel self-conscious in my own skin. The shower was great! Hot, clean, and with good water pressure. A nice touch was the Shiseido shampoo and conditioner. I felt much better afterwards.
I settled down for the night at around 10 pm and eventually fell into a restless sleep. At around 3.30 am I was startled awake by the sound of music, a woman singing… in my half-asleep state I couldn’t tell if it was in Japanese or English or some other language, and for a moment I thought I’d somehow left a radio on. The music played on for a few minutes before it stopped and the relative silence resumed. At 4.30 am I got up to go to the bathroom and was surprised to see that there were many more capsules with closed curtains than there had been earlier. And in the bathroom itself, there was an astonishing number of women sitting at the counters, applying make-up, drying their hair, etc. I guess some people start their days early, and it seemed to me that they were dressed for work, rather than travel.
I’d asked for a wake-up call, just in case the vibrations of my watch alarm didn’t wake me, and right on 6.00 am, I heard a gentle tap on my curtain, which was then drawn aside, and a cheery face peeped in. “Arigato!” I called out softly and the figure retreated. Despite having spent a week or two studying Hiragana, and learning a few Japanese words prior to my trip, ‘Thank you’ was the only word I felt confident of testing on anyone.